Updated: Dec 24, 2022
Your Ultimate Guide at bringing a touch of Scottish and Baird Traditions, both old and new to your holidays throughout the year. We will look at both Highland, Lowland, and diasporic traditions and how incorporating elements of these Scottish Traditions, including historic traditions, into your life can help you protect and pass culture and heritage. Today, we look at the festival of Yule and historic traditions of Scotland.
One of the great traditions of the holiday season is incorporating historic traditions into the celebrations. The best part of the holiday season is that many of the customs and traditions have an air of historicity even if they may be fairly recent traditions. These traditions make us feel connected to generations before us. Not all of today's traditions are "traditional" but that doesn't mean that there aren't historical traditions that are alive today. Some, such as mistletoe, are even quite popular while other, such as the Yule cake, are less well known. While the ban on Christmas or Yule was discussed in a previous article, today, we are discussing ancient traditions that you can reclaim and some of the mythological origins.
In describing these traditions, we need to remember that Scotland was a multicultural country even in its early days. These traditions stem from multiple cultures including early Celtic kingdoms that had Cumbric, Pictish, and Gaelic peoples as well the Germanic peoples including the Anglic peoples as well as Danish and Norse. New settlers brought the influence of Latin, both Roman and ecclesiastical, as well Norman French and Flemish cultures. All of these languages, cultures, and peoples together created the vibrant tapestry that is Scottish culture.
To define Yule, we need to define some cultural terms.
To fully review these historic traditions, need to define a few terms:
Germanic: Used to describe early and medieval Scottish peoples that spoke Germanic languages such as Scots, Old English, Old Norse, and Old Danish
Celtic: Used to describe early Scottish peoples speaking Celtic Languages and divided belonging to pictish, cumbric, welsh, and Gaelic peoples
To begin, let's look at the influence of Germanic peoples on the Scots Language and the people. For these traditions, we need to look at the festival of Yule.
What is Yule?
Yule, or the Yodh in early Scots, was descended from Germanic winter solstice festivals. There are multiple origins for the word. From Northern England and Southern England, we have a strong influence of Old English and the Anglic (Early English and Lowland Scots) people. The Old English term for this day was ġēol. (Fun Fact - This word may appear strange but it the letter GEO appear to have been used for the letter "Y". Other words used today in modern english had this strange spelling such as ġeoc (“yoke”), ġeong (“young”), and ġeolu (“yellow”).) The earliest attestation, in English and Scots, for Yule, may very well be from Bede's 8th century "The Reckoning of Time" (Latin: De temporum ratione). Bede also described a ritual known as Modranicht or Mother's night that occured on Christmas eve.
Norse and Danish invaders brought a similar word and tradition. Their word, Jól, became the word we use today. Snorri Sturlason, an Icelandic historian wrote in the Heimskringla or a collection of Saga's of Old Norse kings. Snorri, also wrote the Poetic and Prose Edda that comprise much of what we know about Norse mythology. In his Saga of Haakon the Good, Snorri related that:
"He made a law that the festival of Yule should begin at the same time as Christian people held it, and that every man, under penalty, should brew a meal of malt into ale, and therewith keep the Yule holy as long as it lasted. Before him, the beginning of Yule, or the slaughter night, was the night of mid-winter, and Yule was kept for three days thereafter. "
Snorri describes Yule as a celebration of the winter solstice complete with feasts, drinking, and Sacrifice. Modern scholars, including Johan Grimm of Grimms Fairy Tales, have linked Yule with other Indo-European folklore traditions including the Wild hunt and influences on Sinterklaas. However, other scholars, including Jackson Crawford, PhD and former instructor in Old Norse at the University of California, disagrees with any comparisons of Odin and Santa.
Yule Traditions (Celtic) - Mistletoe
Mistletoe is a common feature in modern traditions. It may stem much earlier time. A parasitic plant, Mistletoe is an evergreen with white berries in the UK. In Pliny the Elder's Natural History (Naturalis historia), he describes the Celtic Druids using mistletoe:
"We should not omit to mention the great admiration that the Gauls have for it as well. The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak.... Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon....They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons.
Druids were found in all Celtic cultures, including Scotland. Given that the Druids though Mistletoe would impart fertility, the connection to modern mistletoe (kissing under the mistletoe) becomes apparent.
Yule Traditions (Celtic, Germanic) - Holly Wreaths
Wreaths are a common tradition in multiple cultures. Without argument, wreaths were used by Germanic and Celtic cultures. However, it wasn't until the Puritan times that a connection to Christmas and advent wreaths were connected in popular culture to pre-Christian rituals. Regardless, these wreaths were used for Yule celebrations.
Yule Traditions (Celtic, Germanic) - Yule Bread
This includes the creation of Yule Bread in the northern isles of Orkney and Shetland. In the Orkney, during the holiday season cakes were decorated around the outside with pinchmarks. They had a hole cut into the centre and were known as "Yule Cakes". These sun-shaped cakes undoubtedly symbolised the sun and celebrated its rebirth.
Yule Traditions (Celtic, Germanic) - Yule Log
This tradition relates to the specially selected piece of wood that is burned in segments. In modern tradition, this log is burned over 12 days. In Scotland, the Yule Log can take a different flavour. In the Highlands, there is a tradition of carving the log into the Cailleach Nollaig, or Yeel Carlin (Old Witch/Hag of Christmas). This is burned with a portion retained for the next Yule season.
While this may seem incredibly misogynistic in our modern times, it is believed that this may also extend back to ancient times as the Cailleach Bheara, or the Beira, the Queen of Winter. The folklore claims that Beira created the mountains, herds deer, fights spring, and rules all of winter. The legend of Beira claimed that her power grew strongest on the Winter Solstice only to drink from a magical well. The well caused her to grow younger and fall into a magical sleep which causes her to lose her power over Spring. Upon awakening, she is young, but summer has overcome. She ages quick over the course of the year and by the wintertime has aged back to restart winter. In this case, the Cailleach Nollaig represents the personification of winter and the seasons.
Yule Traditions (Celtic) - Crom Dubh Na Nollaig
In Islay, there was a tradition of a nefarious creature that would visit ill-behaved children. Peggy Earl, in 1969, recalled that she was frightened of this creature who would reportedly howl down chimneys in Islay during christmas hunting for bad children.
Crom Dubh has ancient connections as well. Crom Dubh is listed in Gaelic and Irish tradition. In Irish Tradition, Crom Dubh was defeated by St. Patrick and in different legends is a chief, a god, or an idol.[i] In Scotland, outside of Islay, we see Crom Dubh in proverb form Lochaber:[i] In Scotland, outside of Islay, we see Crom Dubh in proverb form Lochaber:
Di-domhnuich Shlat-Phailm, *S ann ris ‘tha mo stoirm ; Di-Domnhnuich Crum-dubh, Plaoisgidh mi ’n t-ubh.
On Palm Sunday is my stir; on crooked black Sunday I'll peel the egg. [ii]
According to Alexander Nicolson, the name Crom Dubh Sunday was given to Easter. This maybe a last vestige of prechristian Scotland.
Yule traditions (Celtic) - Oidhche Choinnle (Candlenight)
Fire has alway been apart of the Holiday seasons, Candle night was the night before Christmas or on Solstice night when Scots would light candles and put them in the window to welcome strangers and remember those who had passed in the year.
Yule traditions (Germanic) - Yule Boar
Christmas Ham is a well-known tradition although in Scotland, Turkey is more traditional today. Some people believe Christmas Ham may derive from the Yule Boar, which was from Freyr, who rode across the sky on a golden bristled boar. In their Yule feasts they would decorate a boar head with laurel and rosemary and only the man with the highest reputation was allowed to do this.
In the Old Statistical Account stated there was no tradition as to the origin of this practice. He concluded that it could, therefore, have no significance, other than the fact it provided the meat for the Yule feast.
So, what are your traditions? What ancestral traditions, Scottish or otherwise, do you keep this time of year? What did we get right and wrong? Let us know!
[i] MacCulloch, John Arnott. The Religion of the Ancient Celts. United Kingdom: T. & T. Clark, 1911.
[ii]Macintosh, Donald, and Alexander Nicolson. A Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Familiar Phrases: Based on Macintosh's Collection. Edinburgh: London: Maclachlan and Stewart ; Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., 1882.